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Is Derek Jeter now Underrated?

It’s become stylish to say legendary Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter is overrated. It’s actually one of the few surviving trends in baseball arguments, as it’s been going on for about a decade. Advanced metrics reveal he wasn’t a valuable fielder (in fact, some numbers say he’s arguably the worst defensive shortstop of all time). He was a compiler late in his career. Many of his most famous moments weren’t all that spectacular in a vacuum, i.e. the running catch into the stands. Jeter was never the best shortstop in the league. Yada yada yada.

As more and more people pile on the “Jeter is Overrated” Train though, it, ironically, makes him a bit underrated. As he enters the Hall of Fame (deservedly), allow me to make the case for Derek Sanderson Jeter being an underrated baseball player.

Peak Performance

Derek Jeter’s peak, or lack thereof for some people, is one of the points his detractors often bring up. He never won an MVP, finishing in the top-5 just three times across 20 seasons. However, I’d argue that, if not for steroid users and bad voting, Jeter would have taken home the award at least once.

We’re assuming Jeets was never on the juice, so stick with me. His seven-year peak was from ’97 to ’03, a span in which he received MVP votes in six different seasons. One of his best years was 1998, when he came in third after a 7.5-win season in which he hit .324/.384/.481. He was beaten out by Nomar Garciaparra, who put up 7.1 bWAR, and Juan Gonzalez, who was most likely a steroid-user and whose bWAR sat at…4.9.

What if this vote took place today, factoring in how much more we know about analyzing performance? It’s very likely Jeter is your 1998 AL MVP.

There are more examples of Jeter getting hosed by the voters. He finished second in MVP voting in 2006, narrowly losing to Justin Morneau. This was the closest he would get to winning the award. Jeter and Morneau’s respective bWAR that season? 5.6 to 4.3. Yet another example of today’s voters potentially deciding differently.

So, while Derek Jeter did not quite have the peak of some of his contemporaries, he missed out on at least one MVP trophy that would have been his in another era. What would the Jeter naysayers think of him if he had a couple MVPs on his mantle?

About his Defense…

Photo by Jonathan Daniel

Derek Jeter had the worst Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR) and the lowest Defensive Runs Saved (DRS) of his generation. Granted, these metrics were introduced in 2003, when Jeter was already 29 years old and approaching the end of his physical prime. Still, he’s the worst in these categories by a landslide.

Derek Jeter simply did not have much range at shortstop.

He did however, make the routine plays very well. He’s in the top-50 all time in terms of fielding percentage for shortstops (.976). He was routinely in the top-5 for shortstops in this category year after year. If a ball was hit within Jeter’s reach, he was pretty automatic.

But unfortunately for the Captain, range is the most important factor when it comes to preventing runs.

Value and Ability

Still, there is a slight difference between being a bad fielder and being a low-value one. Value and ability usually go hand-in-hand, but not always. For example, if a catcher hits 25 HR across 500 ABs, and a 1B hits 30 HR across 500 ABs, who’s the better home run hitter? The 1B right? That’s true. However, those home runs might not be as valuable, since 1Bs typically hit lots of home runs, while catchers don’t. The catcher, although an inferior power hitter to the 1B, is a more valuable power hitter due to the scarcity of home runs among his peers, as opposed to the abundance of them among the 1B’s peers. Value and ability. Not always in sync.

How does this relate to Jeter? Jeter is a low-value defender because his peers, other shortstops, could get to balls he couldn’t. Put Jeter at 3B though, a position that requires far less range, and his value would spike. Why? Because Jeter, when not limited by his physical shortcomings, which were, in part, out of his control, was actually a good fielder. When it came to the fundamentals of fielding balls at shortstop, i.e. staying down, moving through the ball, reading hops, and making good, timely throws, Jeter was solid. The problem is shortstop is the premier defensive position on the field in terms of value, and Jeter didn’t have the lateral speed or quickness to make some plays. His flaws were extra pronounced.

Did he deserve any of his five Gold Gloves? Hell no. Was he a “bad” fielder? That’s not as cut and dry as it seems.

Playoff Performance

It’s really hard to hit in the playoffs. Less runs are scored in the playoffs for a reason. You’re only facing the best the opposition has to offer. Guys are throwing harder. At bats mean infinitely more. Ideally, you’d like a hitter to improve in October, but you’ll take it he just takes a minor step back.

Derek Jeter elevated his game in the playoffs.

The Captain played almost one full season in the playoffs, or 158 games. That full season amounted to .308/.374/.465, with 20 jacks. His .838 playoff OPS is 21 points higher than his regular season OPS of .817, mostly on the back of his power boost. His 162-game HR average in the regular season was 15, while he socked 20 in 158 postseason games. Jeter played in 33 playoff series and had an OPS over .800 in 20 of them; his résumé wasn’t boosted by one or two series in which he was scalding hot. Consistency was always Jeter’s strength and that continued in the playoffs, but on an elevated level.

That’s big time. That’s some Hall of Fame shit right there.

The Hate is Dumb

Derek Jeter is surely overrated by adoring Yankee fans who say he’s the best shortstop ever (honestly though, wouldn’t you? The guy was a god in New York for two decades). But to suggest, like some writers have, that he shouldn’t be in the Hall of Fame is equally dumb. Probably dumber. And the worst part is that millions of people seem to be eating this narrative up, causing Jeets to, potentially, be underrated now.

Derek Jeter is closer to being the best SS of all time than he is to being an unworthy HOFer. So you’re the dumb ones, baseball writers.